Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Religion and Torture - That Poll

Poll categories create bias.  They mediate reality.  On this, at least, the constructivists have a point.  We are incapable of not determining meanings through cultural reagents - through prior experience, mimesis, formal training, language, and media.  We also appear incapable, with few exceptions, of not applying these interpretations to fears, prejudices, and agendas.  This applies to me as much as to anyone, God help me.

The poll to which the title refers is a recent one conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News, two institutions that are steeped in the very interpretive frameworks with which they propagandize the rest of us.  The poll is about the US state's role in torturing captives.

The poll assessed how the very public which they propagandize has responded to a story the Post and ABC themselves have significantly shaped.  It is remarkable that they used the word "torture" in conducting the poll, given how averse they were to that word, favoring instead the state's own bloodless term, "enhanced interrogation techniques," when actually "reporting on the report" that confirmed torture was a sanctioned practice.  They did stick with the language in one respect, though.  They assigned those who had been tortured to the category of "terrorist suspects."

"Looking ahead," they asked pregnantly, "do you feel that torture of suspected terrorists can often be justified, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?"

I can begin by seeing how many times I was counted, even though I never participated in the poll, based on the demographic categories used in the summary.  I am foursquare against torture of any kind, anywhere, any time, so I will also include the percentages in each category who agree with me that torture is altogether unacceptable.  I am a "white Catholic" (12%), living in a rural area (23%), an independent (18%), a male (20%),  white (generally) (17%), a registered voter (18%), some college education (13%), living in the Midwest (19%), earning less than $50,000 a year (22%), between 50 and 64 years of age (63 actually)(20%).

So you can see that I am in a minority in every category, but then the no-torture position never exceeds 33% in any category whatsoever; and the "torture justified" (nuanced into three categories of justification based on how frequently torture ought to be used) is a majority position in every category among Americans.  I'm sorry, but the "seldom justified" is not something I can separate from plain old "justified," because, for me, torture is torture.  Call me an absolutist zealot

Perhaps I ought to explain that.  Inflicting pain, terror, and injury on a helpless captive is torture.  Full stop.  I have vowed never to do any of those things to anyone, helpless, captive, guilty or not - which I take to be a basic Christian position, as I shall explain below.  But we all know what torture is, and in the report that provoked the controversy, they described certain actions - serially drowning and resuscitating, injecting things into people's rectums, breaking their bones, electrocution, beating the shit out of them, and so on.  Let's just use these as examples so we can avoid all the equivocal abstractions.

The reason we need to concretize this discussion with indelicate examples is the whole subject is embedded in carefully formulated, dramatic hypotheses.  Moreover, we are all indoctrinated with - my favorite term from lefty writer Chris Hedges - "electronic hallucinations" nearly from birth that implant these hypothetical situations in our heads.  Television and film, to be more precise, the most effective tools for mass indoctrination in the history of the world, have bombarded us with concocted stories that revolve around something that the late Russian film theorist Sergei Eisenstein labeled the "tempo task."

Ann Kibbey points out, "The tempo task actively closes off ethical and political issues.  That is its purpose."  The tempo task is a dramatic device wherein a protagonist of some kind is faced off against one or more monstrous antagonists, who are about to do some monstrous thing to either many people or to innocent and helpless women or children, and "time is running out."  Tempo.  Task.

Any time we have this debate, those who want to justify torture evade discussion of the actual acts of torture (breaking someone's limbs with iron bars, for example, or letting him be chewed up by attack dogs, or pumping pureed hummus up his ass, or plunging him into ice water until his core temperature drops), and instead deploy a tempo task scenario.  What if he has armed a nuclear bomb in Times Square and you have ten minutes to find it and disarm it?  The purpose of the tempo task scenario is not to establish some moral line, but to dispense with morality altogether in favor of pragmatism in extremis.

We have a hard time separating our "electronic hallucinations," our "entertainment" stories, from reality, because we live in what Davin Heckman called "smart houses," our electronically-equipped barracks, where we receive "the outside world" through electronic media.  It is hard to overestimate the impact of this phenomenon, when the average American watches 34 hours of television a week; and whether on TV  via DVD, Netflix, at the cinemas, etc., we watch around 60 films a year.  I don't  have any data for it, but I'll let the reader speculate, based on her own experience, how many of these stories - many of them very compelling - involve the tempo task... time is running out, and someone with whom we have been led to sympathize and identify is now faced with a situation where he or she has to suspend those nasty moral absolutes to prevent something monstrous done by... naturally, a monstrous caricature.  The story is then resolved by redemption through violence; and - perhaps more importantly - we the audience are swept up in a kind of passionate participation in the violence.  This formula, the tempo task, is a very key part of our social imagination.

I've used Man on Fire as one egregious example of the tempo task formula, but most recently we have seen Zero Dark Thirty, a fictionalized account of the assassination of Osama bin Laden by Seal Team 6, in which torture did not actually elicit the information that led to this assassination, even though the writers and director decided to portray events as if it did.  It is surprising that more of us don't respond to the poll question in support of torture, given that Americans' favorite film convention is redemptive violence, and given that we are indoctrinated by the most effective form of mass hypnosis in history to conflate the tempo task with actual lives, in spite of the fact that none of us ever experience it.  Two out of ten of us - regardless of where we fit in those demographic categories - still say that some things are never justified, and beating the shit out of helpless captives, or drowning them and resuscitating them, or threatening to cut their parents' throats, all fall within that no-go category.

One question I always ask when I accidentally step in this debate is, Would you do it?  Would you, personally, pour water down a bound captive's throat until he drowned, then resuscitate him for another round... and another.  Would you break a weeping captive's arm to force them to answer a question?  Because what we seldom think of, given that we are imagining movie scenarios instead of what actually happens during torture sessions, is what kind of person it takes to administer torture.  Nor do we want to think about what would happen to us if we did this, and then did it again, and again.  And the answer, the desperate answer is... what if?  what if?  what if?  Because the reality would drive us to drink and drug.  And somewhere inside, even when we make these bullshit arguments based on comic book tempo task scenarios, we damn well know it.

But this s a Christian blog, so I need to narrow the focus now.  Two things immediately came up with the publication of this poll:  anguish from my Christian friends who share some basic theological assumptions with me that make torture altogether unacceptable, and triumphant crowing from many "anti-religious" folk, because "non-religious" scored second-highest in saying torture is altogether unacceptable, that is, 32% ("Liberal Democrats" scored 33%).

I'll begin by eschewing the term "Christianity," which is nearly meaningless. I prefer to stay with people who call themselves Christians, which during my own catechism I was taught means "little Christs," and which translates into "those who follow Christ."  That doesn't mean hike around the Holy Lands; it is widely understood to mean a particular "way," and that way is the "way of the cross."

It is a church for sinners and screw-ups (or I wouldn't be here), and we have done an admirable job of proving that, almost from the very beginning, by aligning with power mostly - can't forget the Crusades and the witch hunts - but more generally, by allowing the stories that dominated the surrounding cultures to trump the story into which we are called to live.  This is not a new phenomenon, even though those diversionary stories have morphed dozens of times.  Philosophical liberalism, American exceptionalism, imperial progressivism, acquisitive individualism, and providential nationalism are some of the current stories in the US; and there are plenty of people who call themselves Christian who resist understanding why these stories are in many respects antithetical to the way of the cross.

So when I take the "non-religious" to task for their theological illiteracy, I am obligated to point out that the bigger problem, for Christians, is not the theological illiteracy of non-believers, but the theological illiteracy of believers.  That said, there is one aspect of secular, liberal and even radical theological illiteracy that stands out in the context of this poll and its so-called results.  Or perhaps I should call it historical illiteracy.

"Liberal Democrats" - the most anti-torture demographic, as demographics are broken down for this poll - will have some significant overlap with the "non-religious," though it needs to be said that there are also plenty of Christians who are also "Liberal Democrats" (full disclosure, I am neither).  The specific confessions where most of these Lib-Dems make their church homes are not listed in the poll, which only specifies Catholics (and then only "white Catholics," even though one out of four American Catholics are Latin@ - also not listed) Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Disciples, United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, American Methodist Episcopal, as well as some Baptists, have goodly shares of Lib-Dems.

Among the proudly unchurched, however, those who oppose torture altogether (I salute you!) are mostly unaware that their own "humane" convictions are historically Christian (read here, also, the Jewish prophetic tradition which Jesus in many respects embodied).  They sure aren't pagan, as in Roman or Germanic, at least, wherein humility, compassion, and a preferential option for "the least of these" were all considered signs of weakness at best and madness at worst.  The thing that split the church first, then eventually split many people who had absorbed the basic Christian tenets of compassion and charity away from churches altogether, were the serial failures of the church to practice what it preached.

The paradox is that, as William Cavanaugh has shown, the "holy" migrated from church to state, even within the churches, and churches, once again, became captives of a story that was antithetical to the way of the cross.

The way of the cross is vulnerability even unto death.  Vulnerability is a prerequisite for the main demand made by Christ, which is to love... neighbor and enemy alike.

The story of the state, of nationalism, patriotism, etc., is a story of power and war

 We don't worship saints in the US; we worship the military (including the paramilitary thugs of the secret services).  And so we now have a fertile culture for the growth of nationalistic churches, which leads those unchurched, who still retain those charitable impulses that originated in Nazareth, to reject "Christianity," because it is so bigoted, nationalistic, and warlike.  Be fair, and don't conflate us.  We may not be a majority in our own poll demographic (neither are you), but we are not bigoted, nationalistic, or warlike.

I've just written a book that attempts to prove that there is a violent authoritarian masculinity that underwrites this phenomenon, but that is not my thesis here.

My point is, I suppose, that there is a common thread between the unchurched who oppose torture outright and we minority of people who claim to follow Christ, though the former don't recognize it (historical illiteracy) and the latter are preoccupied with how to redeem the reputation of Christians in the face of such embarrassing poll results.  I can't speak to the former, except to again applaud their opposition to torture.  I just want to remind them, and ourselves, that church is not the problem, but church people constantly falling for the okey-doke of the dominant culture because we can't recognize simple and blinding contradictions.

There are two points I will make about this, each from Ivan Illich's final testament, in Rivers North of the Future.  First, the peculiar horrors of our own age are not the result of Western modernity's rejection of the Christian message, but its perversion after church and state attempted to legislate morality and criminalize sin.  Secondly, and related especially to this phenomenon of people calling themselves Christians and supporting torture, he pointed out that without Christ there could be no anti-Christ, and that 2 Thessalonians suggests that this anti-Christ will grow within the church itself.

I find that in the course of what we now call the second millennium it grew out of the Church and become, in my opinion, not a post-Christian reality, but a perverted Christian reality. (p.90)

So what did these prophets have to say to the Church . . . ? I think they had to announce a mystery, which was that the final evil that would bring the world to an end was already present. This evil was called the Anti-Christ, and the Church was identified as the milieu in which it would nest. The Church had gone pregnant with an evil which could have found no nesting place in the Old Testament. Paul in the second chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians calls this new reality the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil. . . . The more I try to examine the present as an historical entity, the more it seems confusing, unbelievable, and incomprehensible. It forces me to accept a set of axioms for which I find no parallels in past societies and displays a puzzling kind of horror, cruelty, and degradation with no precedent in other historical epochs.  (pp. 59-50)

The Washington Post/ABC poll itself proves nothing beyond the fact that a majority of Americans will tolerate torture by their own government.  As I pointed out, the demographics are too intermixed and arbitrary to show anything else.  I will presume is that fear is a major factor underwriting this wide acceptance of government torture.

As to that, I can add nothing to John, who didn't give a second thought to any tempo task, because he believed what Jesus told him.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)


  1. If they don't take into account that practicing Catholics and non-practicing Catholics are very different, then, well, forget that survey.

    1. Do you think the distinction would improve or worsen the numbers?

  2. I think again about the Nickel Mines Amish massacre in 2006. From Wiki:

    "Some commentators criticized the quick and complete forgiveness with which the Amish responded, arguing that forgiveness is inappropriate when no remorse has been expressed, and that such an attitude runs the risk of denying the existence of evil, while others were supportive. Donald Kraybill and two other scholars of Amish life noted that "letting go of grudges" is a deeply rooted value in Amish culture, which remembers forgiving martyrs including Dirk Willems and Jesus himself. They explained that the Amish willingness to forgo vengeance does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward a future that is more hopeful."

  3. "Among the proudly unchurched, however, those who oppose torture altogether (I salute you!) are mostly unaware that their own "humane" convictions are historically Christian (read here, also, the Jewish prophetic tradition which Jesus in many respects embodied)."

    I call BS. My experience and surveys I've seen suggest that many of the unchurched are former Christians who know *more* about Christianity and its history than most Christians do. It's certainly true of me. And I'm very aware that many aspects of what we consider humaneness arise from or are deeply interwoven with the tenets or ethos of Christianity.